Getting an Academic Job
By Anonymous, August 8, 2011 in Professional Development

Although I am no expert on getting a job, I have some personal and professional experience that might be of value to some readers of the ISI blog.

You should know that, before becoming an academic (I received my Ph.D. only in 2009), I earned a Masters Degree in Human Resources Management from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations. After that I worked for over a decade with three organizations, M&I Data Services, AuditForce, and Cardinal Stritch University. With each organization, I participated in both hiring and firing employees. I joined the faculty at Carthage College in 2007, and have continued to serve on hiring committees for faculty positions, both tenure-track and contract hires.

Rather than rehash the dismal data about the job market, I will offer several tips and strategies you might consider to help separate you from the competition. My comments on this blog represent the rough draft of a larger effort I am working on about positioning in an extremely competitive academic job market. My comments here relate mostly to what you should do when submitting applications for jobs (I plan to make subsequent posts about interviews).

First, avoid appearing silly. I know this sounds a bit trite, but it matters. I have seen a disturbing number of applications with grotesque typographical errors and slapdash phrasing. For instance, one candidate for an academic job boasted that he had “developed the ability to speak orally.” (I will refrain from asking how else one might learn to speak.) Another candidate used the date 2110 for his cover letter. Our committee considered sending him a rejection letter, but, since he was obviously from the future, we decided that he had already learned he didn’t get the job. The point here is that you must avoid silly mistakes in important communications. We all make mistakes, but your application is not the place. Go above and beyond in making your materials shine. Hiring committees are an unforgiving lot and will look for any excuse to rule you out as a candidate. Don’t give them the ammunition.

Do exactly what the job advertisement asks you to do. This means that you should do no more and no less than what the employer wants in an application. Do not try to be creative or to cut corners. For instance, don’t provide a separate discussion of your research unless it is required in the guidelines. Similarly, if the application guidelines ask for a cover letter AND a philosophy of teaching statement, do not fold the two components into a single document. Write a separate cover letter and a more detailed philosophy of teaching statement. If you have doubts about what is required, do not make assumptions. Even if the contact person is the chair of a department, it is better to work up the courage to drop an e-mail or make a phone call than it is to guess at what is wanted.

Start drafting cover letters and philosophy of teaching statements now—even if you don’t have a job in mind. I believe that it is better to re-craft something than it is to start from scratch when you have a deadline approaching. Spend time now, when there is no pressure, thinking about what good teaching means to you. Ask your mentors what they think about good teaching, recall what you remember as good teaching, search the web for ideas, look at your peers’ philosophy of teaching statements, and, above all, try to determine what passes for good teaching at the institution to which you are applying (again, do you homework). Have others read your letters and statements before sending them off.

In terms of writing good cover letters, I have strong opinions. Others will certainly disagree, and I respect that. However, I believe that good cover letters follow a fairly set formula. The letter should:

1) be between 300 and 500 words;

2) indicate clearly to which position you are applying;

3) contain a brief, but confident, one-paragraph discussion of your qualitative abilities (e.g., organizational skills, excellent writing skill, ability to teach a variety of courses);

4) discuss in one to two paragraphs your objective qualifications (e.g., Ph.D. earned in 2005, dissertation on “Pet Keeping Habits of the Parisian Bourgeoisie,” award winning teaching, serve as adviser to the “Stop, Drop, and Roll Fire Safety Club”); and

5) conclude with a very brief paragraph about how you arecertain that youcan contribute quality scholarship, meaningful advising, and excellent teaching to the given department at whatever college. Also mention that you look forward to the opportunity to discuss yourqualifications with themin more detail.

Good philosophy of teaching statements are less formulaic and require more thought than cover letters. Of the excellent statements that I have seen, no two are alike. However, I have noticed a few common themes. First, they are rarely longer than three pages (in fact, most are just about two pages). Next, good statements are well structured. In other words, they have introductory paragraphs that tell the reader what the body of the letter will say and have concluding paragraphs that sum up the statement. Finally, the content of good statements discusses not just teaching, but also research and advising (they also discuss the relationship among teaching, advising, and research). You will notice that my comments lack specificity about content. This is because I believe that teaching statements are idiosyncratic. In essence, they are a chance for you to express your thoughtfulness and individuality. As such, philosophy of teaching statements require contemplation and, above all, repeated revision.

This leads to my next major point. Tailor each cover letter and philosophy of teaching statement to each institution to which you apply. Although it is fine to work from templates, you should craft every application as if the institution to which you are applying is the ONLY one where you could EVER see yourself working. This might seem overstated, but the hiring committee wants to believe that the person it hires is destined for the position. Hiring committees look not only for excellence in a candidate, but also for a good fit.

In order to tailor your materials, you must do your homework. Before you send an application to a prospective employer, you should know as much as you can about the position to which you are applying. The web is the most obvious place to start. Look at all the programs and departments that might relate to your position. In addition, look up the biographies, bibliographies, and areas of expertise of anyone with whom you might work. You need to differentiate yourself from the faculty who work at your target institution. They don’t want to hire copies of themselves. Some overlap between you and current faculty won’t hurt. Just keep in mind that your potential employers will want someone who can expand their department’s offerings, not repeat them. Doing this initial spade work can help you to indentify honest ways in which you might make a positive contribution.

Don’t be afraid to make calls. Let your mentors know where you are applying. Ask them if they have contacts. Ask your friends and peers for help. Do not be shy! In addition, start doing your homework BEFORE you get your assignment. Especially those of you who are still in graduate school should identify institutions where you would like to work. Investigate how many faculty they have in the department, how many are tenured faculty, how many contract, what employment opportunities at the institution have been in the last few years, is the institution financially secure, etc… Even before you are aware of a job opportunity, get in contact with department chairs at those institutions. Write them fan mail about their scholarship. Ask them (e-mail) questions about their schools, about teaching at the type of institution where they work, about the job market. Impress them (or at least start developing networking skills) before jobs become available.

The strategies listed above are low-risk, low-stress. Yet, they have the potential to yield substantial benefits. I am not making this up. I have these used this strategies, and I know others who have, when searching for both professional and academic jobs.

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1 Comment
Ken Larson on Aug 8, 2011 at 5:29 am

As a recruiter for industry, I agree with the basic advice "Anonymous" provides. But as a nit picker, his 6th paragraph parenthesised comment "(again, do you homework)" missed his editor's eye.

I've noticed that many young people are simply not comfortable with writing unsolicited letters to people they don't know so the advice to "get in contact with department chairs .... Write them fan mail about their scholarship. Ask them (e-mail) questions about their schools, about teaching at the type of institution where they work, about the job market. Impress them (or at least start developing networking skills) before jobs become available," might be for naught.

But it should not be ignored. For one thing, they likely don't get much engaging questions from their students and will welcome your request for advice. Almost no one will turn a deaf ear to a request for help. And you shouldn't want to know anyone who would.

As practice and to get some feedback with which you might gauge your rhetorical skills, try writing a comment to one of the contributors to ISI or another journal. Engage them. If you do a good job, you'll get a reply.